Customer satisfaction with major automakers has returned to its highest point in the nearly 20 years of the widely tracked American Customer Satisfaction Index.
The industry achieved an overall ranking of 84 out of 100, tying 2009 for its best-ever mark.
This year is the industry's most impressive performance, said David VanAmburg, managing director of ACSI. In 2009, customers were happy because vehicle prices hit rock bottom when the U.S. government launched the cash-for-clunkers incentives in the summer of 2009 during the depths of the Great Recession.
Prices have since rebounded -- but consumers are still satisfied. ACSI measures three-year satisfaction among new-vehicle buyers. That is a much longer evaluation period than J.D. Power and Associates' Initial Quality and APEAL studies that only measure consumers' impressions during the first 90 days they have a vehicle.
"The automakers are paying more attention to improving the quality of the vehicles themselves. This might be a little more real, a little more sustainable," VanAmburg said.
Six of the nine U.S. auto brands improved from 2011 to 2012. The Jeep brand rose from a score of 79 to 83, while Dodge edged up from 79 to 81. The Chrysler brand went from 76 to 78, but still ranked at the bottom of the industry.
"Obviously there are lots of indicators that Chrysler has been" improving, VanAmburg said. "Its financials have been showing that; its sales are up. They had such a gap with Ford and GM. They've closed that gap, but there's still some ground to make up."
Ford's Lincoln brand, which is in the early stages of a makeover, had the best score at 90. But VanAmburg cautioned that its declining sales in recent years helped its score.
"What you'll find is that precisely because a customer base is shrinking, the ACSI score can go up because essentially what's left is your most-loyal, most-satisfied niche customer base," he said.
Despite improvement among the domestic brands, foreign companies still lead. Toyota's Lexus luxury brand was second-best at 89, up 2 points. Subaru (87), BMW (86), Hyundai (85), Mercedes-Benz (85), Toyota (85) and Volkswagen (85) all beat the industry average.
GM's Buick posted the third-best score at 87, up 2 points. Chevrolet rose 2 points to 84, while Cadillac slipped a point to 86. Ford brand fell a point behind Chevrolet to 83. Nissan (83), Kia (82) and Mazda (82) all trailed the industry average.
Overall, the industry's level of customer satisfaction was comparable to the soft-drink industry or consumer electronics sector, VanAmburg said.
The auto industry beat the scores of the U.S. government (67), banks (75), hospitals (76), newspapers (64) and software (77), but trailed credit unions (87), consumer electronics (85) and soft drinks (85).
"It's actually very strong," he said. "What we find is that manufacturing, generally speaking, trumps services in terms of customer satisfaction. A manufactured product is obviously easier to quality control. In services, you're relying on someone else's human interaction."
ACSI, based in Pittsfield Township near Ann Arbor, uses data from interviews with about 70,000 customers to measure satisfaction with more than 225 companies in 47 industries.
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